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ALCOSAN and Sewer Regionalization

View of ALCOSAN's Woods Run Treatment Plant Photo via Pennsylvania Environmental Council

View of ALCOSAN’s Woods Run Treatment Plant
Photo via Pennsylvania Environmental Council

Maybe you’re reading this article on your phone while you’re on the toilet. It’s OK, not judging. Kind of flattered, actually. When you’re done you’ll (hopefully) flush and then never think about what happens to that stuff ever again. And that’s OK, too. There are people who are around to think of that and I’m one of them.

The reality is that the region’s sewage system is hydraulically overloaded, especially when it rains in the region. Whether it’s due to cracks in the pipes or leaky manholes or streams entering sewage systems, the Pittsburgh region has a sewage overflow problem. Back in 2004, all 83 municipalities that contribute to the Allegheny County Sanitary Authority (ALCOSAN) entered into consent decrees with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). These decrees, in which the municipalities agreed to map/monitor/clean their systems and then come up with a long-term control plan, are administered locally by the Allegheny County Health Department (ACHD) for sanitary-only communities and the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) for combined-sanitary communities — meaning these combined communities have their storm water and sanitary sewage in one pipe. ALCOSAN themselves also have a standalone consent decree, as well.

The feasibility studies were submitted in July 2013 to the various agencies. ALCOSAN aggregated all the municipal feasibility studies into one overall Regional Long-Term Control Plan. That plan had an estimated price tag of $2 billion dollars, with a ‘b’, and $530M of that was the municipal component of long-term control. The $2B price tag was backed into by using the EPA’s Affordability Index’s metric that anything more than 2% of median household income (MHI) is considered a ‘high burden’ on a community. Obviously that’s spread over ALCOSAN’s whole customer service area, as MHI in Rankin is quite different than MHI in Fox Chapel.

In an effort to relieve the financial burden on communities, some of whom may have to spend upwards of $10M spread over as little as 3,000 residents, I co-authored a white paper back in 2011 with Tim Rogers to transfer multi-municipal trunk sewers to ALCOSAN’s control. ALCOSAN would then assume all operation and maintenance over these lines, plus any future capital improvement costs to upsize capacity in these lines. The proposal would also turn over existing facilities on these multi-municipal lines (such as detention tanks and pump stations) to ALCOSAN.

The idea was one of many ideas discussed and dissected by the Allegheny Conference Sewer Regionalization Study that was chaired by Dr. Jared Cohen, then-President of Carnegie Mellon University. The 18-month study (released to the public in March 2013) looked at many different alternatives, including full regionalization of all sanitary sewers and full regionalization of all storm & sanitary sewers, but the idea of transferring just the multi-municipal sewers scored highest on the rubric created by the panel members.

One of the offshoots from the Allegheny Conference study was the need to change the governance structure of the ALCOSAN Board of Directors. Currently, it is a seven member board with three members appointed by the Mayor, three members appointed by the County Executive, and one joint appointment. The University of Pittsburgh’s Institute of Politics recommended a switch to a nine member board, where three would represent the City and six would represent the other 82 member municipalities that contribute to ALCOSAN. The current idea is to have one member from each of the six ALCOSAN planning basins represent the municipalities in that zone. This would give the non-City of Pittsburgh entities more comfort that their voices are being heard at ALCOSAN.

“No Flocculation Without Representation”, if you will….that’s an engineering joke….relates to the Boston Tea Party….nevermind.

The texture of the discussion relating to sanitary sewers has changed greatly in the eleven years since the municipalities signed their consent orders. Back in 2004, it was not uncommon for neighboring municipalities to have no interest in working together. The concept of regionalization would have been dismissed out of hand immediately; today, an era of cooperativeness is being embraced in the region. The second new shift in thinking is towards green infrastructure. Back in 2004, the idea of removing storm flow from sanitary sewers or disconnecting rain leaders and sending the storm water into rain gardens would have been viewed as hippie b.s. Now, EPA is endorsing more of a water quality-based approach, which has led ALCOSAN to consider using green technologies to cut down on how much flow gets to their treatment plant. Instead of telling municipalities “just get the flows here, we’ll deal with it” there is talk of installing flow targets for municipalities to adhere to, thus encouraging source reduction initiatives.

Are we more evolved? Are we smarter? Or are we just trying harder to look at different ways of solving a long-standing problem?

The transfer concept is moving forward. It’s being vetted legally and still dissected politically, but I have confidence that within the next two years, the first municipality will transfer their multi-municipal trunk sewers to ALCOSAN. For the region’s sake, the idea makes too much sense not to do it.


  • Relieves them of direct financial burden — Cost for their project now not borne by that municipalities residents solely, as it can be spread over the entire ALCOSAN service area
  • Can concentrate on maintaining rest of system — Prior to the consent decrees, municipalities neglected their sanitary systems. This resulted in a lot of ingrown root issues, blockages, and unnecessary overflows. Now the municipalities can allocate their financial resources and manpower to keeping their systems operating smoothly
  • Keep customer revenue — The municipalities will still collect sewage fees from their residents and use the money to operate and maintain the collector portion of the system. They will also be “first responders” to a backup on the trunk lines, because ALCOSAN is somewhat poor at that facet.
  • Takes burden off of political officials — This venture, as shown by the multi-billion dollar price tag, is going to expensive. By transferring the bulk of the long-term costs to ALCOSAN, elected officials are now relieved of the often unpleasant task of having to potentially raise sewer rates. Now, ALCOSAN can raise the rate as they see fit and the municipality just passes the cost through to the residents.


  • Allows for better coordination of the overall construction picture — ALCOSAN can now view the entire construction picture and decide when to complete construction of certain upgrades. Before, the municipalities had to complete their projects by 2026, whether ALCOSAN was prepared to take the additional flows in their interceptors or not.
  • Allows for more control over flows — Currently, if there is a large storm event, a local municipalities detention tanks may hold the flow and then quickly release it once the immediate event passes. It’s out of sight/out of mind for the municipality, but that flow may be released the same time as others, causing a large peak flow to ALCOSAN. By assuming control of facilities, ALCOSAN can more efficiently time the release of post-event flows for when they are ready to handle it.

Nerd engineer by day, nerd writer at night. Kevin is the co-founder of The Point of Pittsburgh. He is the author of Creating Christ, a sci-fi novel available on Amazon.

1 Comment on ALCOSAN and Sewer Regionalization

  1. Was totally reading this on the toilet.

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